In 2012, a weak yet possible link between aspartame and certain kinds of cancers, which was considered worthy by a lesser known journal for further study, was almost turned into a sensational story by the press release outlining the story. A later retraction, instead, became a story on how easy it could be to sensationalize barely significant findings in food science research with embarrassing results.
Scientists from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, studied the potential risks of certain cancers in groups that consumed diet drinks. The study found that men who had greater than 1 daily serving of diet soda had increased risks of Non Hodgkin’s Lympomas (NHLs) and multiple myeloma. Women had no observed increased risks (1.). The study also observed an “unexpected elevated risk of NHL with a higher consumption of regular, sugar-sweetened soda in men but not in women”. (1.) The association between cancers and aspartame were determined by the study team to be weak, though notable enough for possible further study.
After the study was released to select media in an embargo, the Brigham and Women’s Hospital put out a press release with an attention grabbing headline of “The truth isn’t sweet when it comes to artificial sweeteners.” (2, 3.) This headline of this press release overstated the association between aspartame and cancer to such an extent that several news agencies were prepared to publish the story as a significant finding. However, as reporters worked on the story, several senior researchers in the field who had a copy of the study raised some concerns about the weak statistical correlations and inconsistent findings in it. (3, 4.)
The caveats in the study were numerous. (1., 2., 3., 4.) It was possible those men who drank sodas heavily had other confounding risk factors like obesity, diet, or other environmental factors. The weak correlation between cancer and aspartame consumption could have just been random. When the two cohorts in the study were combined for meta-analysis, there was no significant association between soda intake and risks of NHL and multiple myeloma. There was no reasonable explanation that an unexpected elevated risk of NHL was not observed in women. The conclusion was, indeed so weak that the journal authors had to submit their paper to six journals before it was finally accepted for publication by the seventh.
Just hours before the study was to be released in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the scientific leaders at Brigham and Woman’s hospital issued an email retraction to their media contacts which stated, “Upon review of the findings, the consensus of our scientific leaders is that the data is weak, and that BWH Media Relations was premature in the promotion of this work. We apologize for the time you have invested in this story.” (3.)
S Charles Coderre, August 2016.
1. Scherhammer E.S., Bertrand K.A., Birmann B.M. et. al (2012), Consumption of artificial sweetener– and sugar-containing soda and risk of lymphoma and leukemia in men and women. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
2. Unknown Author (2012), Harvard hospital retracts statement about data on aspartame and cancer, The Skeptical Raptor Blog. Found online at http://www.skepticalraptor.com/skepticalraptorblog.php/harvard-hospital-retracts-statement-data-aspartame-cancer/
3. Robert Bazell (Wednesday Oct 24, 2012 12:40 PM), NBC News, Harvard hospital admits it promoted weak science on aspartame. Found online at http://vitals.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/10/24/14674053-harvard-hospital-admits-it-promoted-weak-science-on-aspartame
4. Aubrey, Allison (2012), Data Linking Aspartame To Cancer Risk Are Too Weak To Defend, Hospital Says, The Salt: What’s on Your Plate blog, NPR. Found online at: http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2012/10/24/163559533/aspartame-and-cancer-risk-new-study-is-too-weak-to-defend